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Cancelling in church and society

  • 24 February 2022
  A local event in the United States Catholic Church has recently aroused interest in Australia. A Bishop declared to be invalid (non-existent and without effect) baptisms celebrated over twenty years by a priest of his diocese. As a result people baptised by the priest will have to be properly baptised. Although the issues raised by this event are specific to the Catholic Church it raises broader questions of how any group should respond to behaviour considered deviant.

The story begins with the response in June 2020 by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to a request for clarification. It was asked whether Baptisms in which the celebrant used the formula ‘We baptise you…’ (instead of the prescribed ‘I baptise you…) were invalid (did not count as baptism). If they were invalid, the CDF was asked whether people involved would need to be properly baptised. In 2020 it responded that the baptisms were invalid, and that they would need to receive Baptism in its proper form.

Since baptism is required for the valid reception of other sacraments (e.g. confirmation, marriage and holy orders) these further sacraments are also rendered invalid by a previous invalid baptism.

In January this year Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix Arizona wrote to the Catholics of his Diocese that a priest had in good faith for twenty years used the invalid form ‘we baptise you’. Those affected should approach the Diocese to remedy the effects of their invalid baptism and reception of other sacraments.

In its 2020 response the CDF recognised the pastoral reasons offered for the ‘we baptise you…’ form. It also recognised the shared responsibility of those already baptised for the sacramental life of the Church. It based its rejection of the ‘we baptise…’ formula on the faith that in baptism it is Christ who personally gathers together the Church of which the congregation is part and baptises. Visibly the celebrant performs the ceremony. Invisibly and in reality it is Christ himself who baptises. The celebrant must intend to do as the Church does, which is to celebrate the Sacraments as Christ founded them and as prescribed in the liturgy of the Church. Individuals who modify the Church’s language and fail to say as the visible representative of Christ ‘I baptise you…’ wound the unity of the Church, diminish the activity of Christ in the sacraments, and risk making them invalid.

The CDF rightly understands Christ